Calligraphy book reviews

These are all calligraphy books that are on my shelf (unless otherwise stated) which I use. Some of them cross topics so it's worth browsing through the list.

If you do wish to buy a copy of anything listed below, the links go (I hope) to the appropriate page on Amazon, and I get a few cents or pence of commission for each sale, which go back into more books and materials. Remember to check for second-hand copies! 

Brown, Michelle P., and Patricia Lovett, The Historical Source Book for Scribes (London, 1999)

Combining manuscript-based description of historical scripts with clear analysis and instructions for modern-day calligraphers, Michelle Brown (eminent palaeographer) and Patricia Lovett (eminent calligrapher) join forces in this glossy, useful book which is both reference and learning manual. It is full of large colour pictures, diagrams showing how to draw letterforms, and fascinating background. Scripts are divided into family groups more or less in order of their historical appearance, as is usual in most treatments of historical scripts, ie Capital scripts and Uncial at the beginning, Italian Rotunda and Humanistic scripts at the end. In between are over a hundred pages of excellent inspiration and advice, and examples drawn from the early Roman period to the present day. It's particularly useful in going further forward in time than Drogin, who stops with Gothic Littera Bastarda; after Batarde, Brown and Lovett offer Italian Rotunda, Humanistic Cursive Book Script, and developed Italic, or Cancellaresca. Highly recommended – I bought mine at full price (there is no higher praise).

Harris, David, The Calligrapher's Bible: 100 Complete Alphabets and How to Draw Them (London, 2003)

The Calligrapher's Bible is a very useful reference book, containing a huge range of alphabets including such gems as Fraktur flourished capitals and two versions of secretary hand. But it's not the best learning book I've seen, mainly because to fit one hundred alphabets into one ring-bound volume means sacrificing some level of instructional detail. Therefore each alphabet is written out on the left-hand page of each double spread (with, to the author's credit, useful guides about stroke order and direction) and then some notes on basic structure are given on the right-hand page. It's pretty minimal, but that said, it makes up for that with its range 

I wouldn't in all honesty recommend this as a self-learning book for absolute beginners, but if you just want to have all the historical scripts you're ever likely to need at your fingertips, this handy volume is something of a one-stop shop.

Drogin, Marc, Medieval Calligraphy: Its History and Technique (New York and London, 1980)

This is a great calligraphy book. Drogin was the original popular historical-scripts-calligrapher before Brown and Lovett came along (see above) – he takes various historical alphabets and breaks them down into simple steps for the modern-day scribe on graph paper so you can see the proportions. He includes many unusual medieval scripts which you just won't find elsewhere, including Celtic (early insular) hands, two forms of uncial, Carolingian roundhand, three varieties of gothic, and several more – the whole alphabet each time, with each nib movement described. NB this calligraphy book is strictly medieval: so, no italic, copperplate or Foundational hand. But Drogin explains useful fiddly details, like how to use the corner of the nib; he also supplies photographs of original manuscripts for each script; and transcribes the texts; AND his introduction contains everything you need in order to become curious and excited about historical handwriting, including a long and wonderful digression upon Titivillus, the minor demon responsible for scribal errors. Obtain this book. Seriously. You'll love it. Then, if you change your mind, send it to me. I've worn mine ragged.

Reynolds, Lloyd J., Italic Calligraphy and Handwriting: Exercises and Text (New York, 1969)

You say, "1969? A bit old, isn't it?" Yes, but consider that it's gone through thirty-four printings. Like the shark, Reynolds must have found a perfect evolutionary niche early on and then stuck to it. It has no rows of teeth, I hasten to add, but it is a very helpful little italic calligraphy book, very economically priced, which also deals with everyday italic handwriting. Reynolds writes in a slightly stiff and almost comically schoolmarmy manner ... Do not hurry at the beginning. Understand what you are doing, or you are only wasting time. Study the model thoroughly before you write a letter ... etc. But get over Reynolds' bossy style, do the exercises as instructed and you will see your italic calligraphy and everyday handwriting improve dramatically, as I did.

Thomson, George L., The Art of Calligraphy: How to Master Broad Pen Scripts (London, 1986)

First published in 1985 as The Calligraphy Workbook: How to Master Broad Pen Script which is now the only one I can find listed.

This is a tremendously comforting calligraphy book. It contains nothing much but 'four easy scripts' – uncial, roundhand, blackletter (gothic) and italic – and instructions on how to make your own pen. Its beauty is the sheer size of the examples Thomson provides. They are huge, a good two-to-five inches high, and laid out mid-page between lines so they are easily traceable. Every stroke is clearly visible and you really can use your whole hand and arm to write with at that scale, which, funnily enough, then makes it easier to write smaller. If you ever feel faintly cramped by little exemplars, this particular calligraphy book is the solution. Oh, and it's ring-bound, so it stays open and flat exactly where you want it.

Trudgill, Anne, Traditional Penmanship (Lettering Workbooks 2) (London, 1989)

A small but highly concentrated and effective guide to writing a whole variety of traditional broad-nibbed scripts, from Roman to roundhand, including a few less common calligraphy alphabets such as Carolingian roundhand, Lombardic versals and rotunda gothic. Very, very clear. Nice, brief, informative sections on materials, history of writing, basic techniques, design and decoration etc. Highly recommended: still a 'top-ten' practical calligraphy book which I use every time I teach as well as for my own reference.

Winters, Eleanor, Mastering Copperplate: A Step-by-Step Manual for Calligraphers (New York, 1989) 

(Also known as Mastering Copperplate Calligraphy, a Step-by-Step Manual)

Truth be told, this is my mum's copy, but until she actually notices it's missing from her shelf ... Winters' is a practical calligraphy book par excellence: big, bold, detailed, precise, orderly and effective. Softback, too. Copperplate is not an easy script, especially for a gothic fan like me, but after a few weeks of dipping casually into this book in the evenings, I had gone from frankly lousy to 'fancy envelope addresses' and had also produced a most acceptable birthday present. Winters' examples are large and clear; she provides step-by-step training in the different strokes of copperplate, before going on to the letters of the alphabet in order of difficulty; she provides illustrations of how letters can go wrong, and explains how to correct them; and she offers her expertise lightly, with the kindly wisdom of long experience.

Winters, Eleanor, Italic and Copperplate Calligraphy: The Basics and Beyond (New York, 2011)

This is an interesting calligraphy book: Copperplate and Italic look rather different from each other, come from different historical periods, and are even written using different calligraphic tools. Why bring them together in one volume? Winters is brilliant at cursive calligraphy, and she shows that there is a great deal in common between the two scripts in the way the calligrapher must think with them – fluidity of movement, styles of practice, maintaining constant slant, flourishing etc. It's not a beginner's book, but it's not dismayingly difficult, either, and it covers the basics in a useful way before settling into meaty chapters on letter variations, proportions, design, layout and various projects. Winters also includes a chapter on commercial calligraphy which should be required reading for everyone who ever takes up a calligraphic commission. Softback, so not too dismayingly priced, either.

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